As the Wisconsin Senate begins a fast-tracked debate over a controversial “right-to-work” bill on Wednesday, workers in neighboring Michigan are speaking out about the impacts the anti-union policy has had on their state. The law, passed over strong public opposition in Michigan in 2012, allows workers to opt out of formerly mandatory union fees, effectively dealing a blow to unions’ resources and their ability to bargain.
Now, Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) and others pushing a nearly identical bill in Wisconsin are citing Michigan as a reason to quickly pass the measure, arguing it’s necessary in order to compete for business within the Midwest. Amy Davis-Comstock with the Service Employees International Union in Michigan told ThinkProgress she and her members were told the same thing in 2012, but she has yet to see the promised economic benefits.
“Michigan has not been this great success story,” she said. “If businesses are doing so well, why do we have this huge budget deficit now? We don’t have new industries coming in. We don’t have employers vying for the unemployed workers we have here. We’ve been waiting to see what jobs have even been created, and a lot of them are in sectors like hospitality and retail, which are not living wage jobs, and usually have no benefits.” Davis-Comstock’s observation mirrors data from other “right-to-work” states that have similarly failed to significantly grow employment.
In fact, the administration of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R) has lowered the number of jobs businesses need to create in order to get a massive tax credit, because too few were meeting the original threshold. Meanwhile, the impact of the right to work law on the state’s unions has been devastating. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of union members in Michigan fell by 48,000, even as the workforce grew by 44,000. As union membership continues its decades-long decline, the state’s middle class is shrinking.
Davis-Comstock, whose union represents janitors, secretaries, bus drivers and other staff in the state’s public schools, said that in districts hit hard by budget cuts some employees have opted out of paying fees to the union. “It’s been an uphill battle,” she said, noting that Michigan passed a second “right-to-work” bill specifically targeting schools. “But we continue represent everyone and we’re making sure people are fully educated about what’s available to them. We also lobby against things like budget cuts and say, ‘You can’t balance the budget on the backs of low-income workers.'”
After the passage of what she called the “really nasty bill,” contract negotiations became more difficult. “The more members we have, it gives us more power at the bargaining table,” she said. “When people drop out, management knows we are weaker.”
As they did during the anti-collective bargaining debate in 2011, many Michigan workers traveled to Wisconsin this week to join demonstrations against the “right-to-work” initiative. Among them was Jonathan Byrd, a construction worker and LIUNA union member, who told ThinkProgress that he sees the current onslaught of bills as another chapter in the fraught history of the labor movement in the Midwest. “People fought for the rights we have now. Some gave up their lives, and other sacrificed their families,” he said. “So I hope folks wake up and appreciate that, because if they don’t wake up we’re going to lose it. We’re already seeing the erosion of workers’ rights.”
Byrd says that for himself and many other Michigan workers, the worst impacts of “right-to-work” are still to come. That’s because they’re still operating on contracts negotiated before the law went into place. But as those contracts expire over the next few months and years, “we’ll have less rights going forward, and be less able to bargain,” he said.
Additionally, a study by Michigan State University found “right-to-work” laws have had a negative impact on workplace safety. Researchers reported that the 24 states that have such laws have 34 percent higher rate of deaths on the job in the construction industry.
“Right now we have classes on safety, how to be more productive, how to make sure the job is done right the first time, and how to fix the mistakes,” Byrd explained. “The union fees pay for these programs, which create a skilled workforce at no cost to the taxpayer. But when we become ‘right-to-work,’ some folks won’t pay their fair share of the training cost and we’ll be in danger of losing that.”
Unlike in Michigan, Wisconsin’s bill would take effect immediately upon the governor’s signature, with no “grace period” for management and unions to extend their current contracts.
Later this year, the United Auto Workers’ contract with the so-called “Big Three” car companies in Michigan will expire, and the renegotiated contract will allow tens of thousands of workers to opt out of paying dues. Ford plant employee and longtime UAW member Dora Rodriguez-Sharkey told ThinkProgress she fears losing the rights and benefits her union has worked to secure over the years.
“I love working in a closed union shop,” she said. “It solidifies the quality of everyone’s right to equal pay. If you see something wrong, like health or safety issues, you have the right to report it and don’t have to worry about repercussions from management, and you know it’s going to be investigated. I like knowing if that I have a question about our work environment I can ask it.”
Rodriguez-Sharkey was one of hundreds of workers who packed into the Michigan capitol in 2012 and were subsequently sprayed with mace and throwing out of the building as the legislature held a fast-track debate on the “right-to-work” bill.
“Being locked out of your own House, that was messed up and totally wrong,” she said. “I hope and pray the same thing doesn’t happen in Wisconsin. I hope that folks there continue to stand strong and stick up for themselves, and even though I’m pretty disheartened, I hope we find a way to overturn it here. I’m not willing to give up yet.”